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Editorial columns

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WGU running among Fast Company

Emphasis on technology puts campus with other innovators

Innovation is necessary to our state’s future prosperity. Though it is more often associated with how we conduct business, apply research or develop technology, innovation is critical to how we educate and prepare our workforce. There is a paradox of a gap in Indiana: There are nearly 740,000 Hoosier adults who began college but never finished. And, more and more employers in Indiana point to a growing need for highly qualified candidates to fill available positions. We have a disconnect between higher education and our workforce supply and demand.

Enter innovation. We are thinking more and more beyond the bricks and mortar that have been our model for higher education. Online options are growing, and with them come new approaches to reaching, interacting with and engaging students, removing barriers that have stopped some Hoosiers in their paths to a degree, making it possible for students to pick up and finish what they started.

Fast Company magazine agrees.

This month, Fast Company recognized Western Governors University on its list of the “50 Most Innovative Companies.” The Fast Company annual list singles out companies for progressive business models and creative approaches to delivering new solutions. WGU ranks 28th on the list that includes Nike, Google, Coca-Cola, Ford and Samsung. WGU is the only accredited, degree-granting university on the Fast Company list, further endorsing Indiana’s local WGU “campus” embraced by the state of Indiana.

Since its inception in 2010 as the state’s nonprofit, online university, WGU Indiana has grown to 3,200 students and more than 500 graduates from every county in the state. Just like Fast Company’s other honorees, WGU Indiana uses technology to meet the needs of its customers, its students.

Innovation at WGU Indiana means that students have literally at their fingertips a learning experience that’s personalized for their individual path to a bachelor’s or master’s degree. Through its competency-based model, WGU Indiana measures learning as opposed to time spent in class. Students can take as many courses as they can handle in a six-month term, giving students the opportunity to accelerate toward a degree. On average, a student is enrolled five terms, or 2.5 years, to earn a bachelor’s degree.

This is why I’m enthusiastic to serve on WGU Indiana’s Board of Advisors. Its innovative model reduces barriers of location and time constraints, and still connects personally with each student through a mentor. The university makes going back to school as convenient as booting up a laptop or tablet and as engaging as having a personal coach.

WGU also costs less, because there is little expense for physical facilities. The university has kept tuition at an affordable flat rate of $6,000 per year. Students enjoy free textbooks and are also eligible for both federal and state financial aid. WGU Indiana is the only state university that receives no money from the state for operating expenses.

And most importantly, convenience and low cost do not sacrifice quality. In fact, WGU Indiana was recognized by the Indiana Commission for Higher Education for its excellence in academic quality.

WGU Indiana is not alone in finding new ways to help Hoosiers graduate. Indiana’s other colleges and universities are creating online options, freezing tuition and offering accelerated degree programs and three-semester models to add convenience and combat the burden of tuition. That means more Hoosiers can finish degrees and strengthen Indiana’s workforce.

Let’s embrace innovation in higher education. And let’s celebrate when our state colleges and universities get it right. Indiana’s prosperity depends on it.

Kathy Davis, a member of the WGU Indiana Advisory Board, is a former lieutenant governor of Indiana. She wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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